Karl Yoneda


Name Karl Yoneda
Born 1906
Died 1999
Birth Location Glendale, CA
Generational Identifier

Kibei activist, union organizer, World War II veteran, and writer. Karl Yoneda (1906–99) was born in southern California, but as a child went to Japan where he attended school and participated in political struggles for thirteen years. He returned to the U.S. in 1926 and joined the U.S. Communist Party. During World War II, he focused on defeating fascism and volunteered from Manzanar concentration camp for the Military Intelligence Service. Following the war, he remained active in social justice movements, including mobilizations for redress and reparations. He wrote three books: an autobiography in the English language and two books in Japanese, including one on Japanese American labor history.

Before the War

Karl Yoneda was born as Goso Yoneda on a small farm in Glendale, California in 1906, becoming one of the first U.S.-born Japanese Americans. In 1913, his ill father took him and his cousin to Yasuno, a remote mountain area in Hiroshima Prefecture. A year later, they were joined by his mother and two sisters. His father died of tuberculosis in 1915. While attending schools, he became politically active, participating in a high school students' strike in 1921 against "a dictatorial dormitory supervisor" and in a newspaper boys' strike in the same year. At the age of fifteen, he hitchhiked to Beijing in search of the Russian anarchist Vasily Eroshenko whose writings intrigued him. After traveling and working for four months in Korea and Manchuria, he stayed with Eroshenko for two months. Upon returning to Japan, he decided not to go back to school and joined the labor movement and participated in several strikes.

In 1926, he returned to the United States to avoid being drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. In Los Angeles, he quickly became involved in the Rafu Nihonjin Rodo Kyokai (Los Angeles Japanese Workers' Association) and in 1927 joined the U.S. Communist Party, under the name "Karl Hama," taking the name "Karl" in tribute to Karl Marx. For the next fifteen years, he helped organize agricultural workers in southern and central California and cannery workers in the Pacific Northwest and participated in numerous struggles for immigrant rights, civil rights for African Americans, and against political repression. From 1933 to 1936, he served as editor for Rodo Shimbun, a labor newspaper focusing on Japanese immigrants published in San Francisco by the Communist Party. In 1934, he became one of the first Japanese Americans to run for political office, garnering more than a thousand votes in a campaign for a State Assembly seat from the San Francisco Fillmore District as a Communist Party candidate. In 1936, he married activist Elaine Black, daughter of Russian Jewish immigrant revolutionaries. Due to anti-miscegenation laws in California, the couple traveled to Washington state to be legally wed. The couple had one son, Thomas, born in 1939. In 1936 in San Francisco, Yoneda became the first Japanese American union longshoreman on the mainland and worked on the docks for several periods of his life until his retirement in 1972.

From his early years onward, he opposed Japanese militarism and fascism. As a teenager, he joined worker strikes in Japan to promote democracy and also briefly published a progressive monthly for poor farmers called Tsuchi (Earth). After returning to the U.S., he organized protests against Japan's repression of pro-democracy movements and its invasion of China. In the late 1930s in West Coast Japanese immigrant communities, he spoke out against pro-Japan sentiment, especially efforts by religious and community leaders to collect funds in support of Japan's actions in China.

Wartime Experiences

Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Communist Party suspended all Japanese American members to demonstrate its backing for the U.S. war against Japan. Although Yoneda and other Party members opposed what they called an "anti-working class, racist edict," they decided that it was not the time to protest but to help carry out the Party's campaign against worldwide fascism. Yoneda went to his draft board to enlist but was turned down due to his ethnicity, his family status, and his age. After President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, Yoneda volunteered as a construction worker for Manzanar concentration camp. At Manzanar, he was soon joined by his wife, Elaine, his infant son and thousands of other Japanese Americans.

At Manzanar, Yoneda and others who supported the U.S. war effort, such as leaders of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), clashed with the Black Dragon Association led by Joe Kurihara and others whom Yoneda termed as "pro-Japan." With JACL leaders, he helped form the Manzanar Citizens Federation and circulated a petition to President Roosevelt urging the U.S. Army to accept Nisei volunteers. Yoneda's fervent activities to mobilize fellow Japanese Americans for the war against Japan were recorded by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informants in the camp and led FBI head J. Edgar Hoover to file a memo stating: "…Yoneda is one of those rare individuals who is of Japanese descent, but is open and avowed in his Communist sympathies and anything but in sympathy with the present militaristic regime in Japan." His activities also angered Black Dragons who threatened him and his family for colluding with camp officials and government surveillance agencies.

Camp conflict—along with widespread complaints about living conditions in the camp and charges of corruption against camp officials—culminated in early December 1942, in the severe beating of JACL leader Fred Tayama by masked assailants. Camp authorities arrested kitchen worker Harry Ueno as a suspect in the beating, provoking large-scale protests, which resulted in the killing of James Ito by military police.

At the time of the "Manzanar riot," Yoneda and others were in Minnesota for training for the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). In early 1944, his team was dispatched to Burma where he created propaganda leaflets to urge Japanese troops to surrender. Later his team worked with the Office of War Information (OWI) in China and India.

Aftermath

Yoneda and his wife returned to San Francisco and resumed work in the Communist Party. They urged Party leaders to overturn its racist wartime exclusion policy against members of Japanese ancestry. For a decade, due to health problems, Yoneda became an owner of a chicken farm but eventually returned to work on the docks as a member of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) until his retirement in 1972. From the late 1960s onward, he served as a guest lecturer in Asian American Studies classes on college campuses sharing his scholarship and personal experiences relating to Japanese American labor history and activism. He and his wife helped organize the first pilgrimages to Manzanar and were involved in early initiatives calling for redress and reparations. In the 1980s and 1990s, he continued to join picket lines and protests and express solidarity for movements for social justice, especially those organized by young Asian Americans.

Authored by Glenn Omatsu, California State University, Northridge

For More Information

Yoneda, Karl. Ganbatte: Sixty-year Struggle of a Kibei Worker. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1983.